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Bad Boys Sure, But Women Shine In The Modern’s ’80s Art Show

by Joan Davidow 18 Dec 2014 6:00 PM

Yes, Koons and Warhol make a splash, but it’s the ladies who steal the show.



“I shop,” by Barbara Kruger.

New York City was a gritty and exciting place for artists in the 80s. The scene and its splashy artists – from Andy Warhol to Keith Haring — all appear at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s exhibition Urban Theater:  New York Art in the 1980s.  But it was the women artists featured in the show who caught the attention of  KERA contributor Joan Davidow.

Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s runs until Jan. 4

Listen to the report that aired on KERA FM:


More of everything characterized the 80s in New York: the confusion and the excitement, once said art critic Peter Scheldahl. This exhibition, curated by The Modern’s Michael Auping, who lived through the 80s in New York, reflects that flamboyant spirit.
All the hotshot bad boy artists show up, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s raw, crude, street portraits and Jeff Koons’ funky single basketball floating in a fish tank. The exhibition also shows the dynamic women artists working at the time, who surprisingly matched the men and also changed the course of art history.

A lot of dynamic painting appears, but the women artists, such as Cindy Sherman attacked painting as irrelevant.

Sherman UntitledFilmStill_65

“Untitled Film Still #65,” one of several pieces by Cindy Sherman in The Modern’s show.

Sherman turned her camera on herself, developing a series of black-and-white photographs styled as film stills evoking popular movies and playing with Hollywood stereotypes. In Untitled Film Still #5, 1977, she’s opening what looks like a “dear John” letter from a former lover. It looks so real, so believable! She was her own actress, producer, director, and set designer. Sherman says she never thought she was acting; people believe photographs; it was conceptual art:  She made projects for herself.

The 80s’ hyper consumer culture shows up in the work of Barbara Kruger, a layout designer at a big publishing house in New York.  Kruger uses pithy statements to create moments of recognition and spark understanding.  Nothing could epitomize Dallas’ consumer culture more than her huge black-and-white photograph of a graceful hand holding a big red label with text, “I shop therefore I am.”
Another young artist, Jenny Holzer, came up with what she called, Truisms, a series of short, cryptic euphemisms — rules to live by — scrolling by in LED lights.  “Money Creates Taste,” proclaims one of the messages moving across a Times Square billboard in a 1989 piece called Survival. Holzer was the first woman ever to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale.

Of course, the 80s also brought the AIDS epidemic, a force that artists addressed.  Shockingly, by 1989 someone died of AIDS worldwide every SIX minutes! Photographer Nan Goldin showed us the underbelly of life in a New York resident hotel, taking color snapshots of her gay drug buddies, even showing herself battered and bruised by a lover, so she’d never forget that horror.

Goldin_black eye

“Black Eye,” by Nan Goldin.

The last wall in the Modern’s exhibition depicts documentary posters from the anonymous political group, the Guerrilla Girls, a pack of women artists who paraded in front of museum and gallery openings calling out the scarcity of women artists shown inside and demanding equal representation.

Thanks to Curator Auping’s first-hand experiences, his looking back at the ’80s in New York City makes it extremely poignant in today’s time: These history-making women artists are today’s grande dames, creating styles and setting trends still resonating today.